Soweto was amazing for me in terms of the power of rugby
Rugby hero Sean Fitzpatrick talks about a trip to Soweto where he saw the real power of sport
The raggle-taggle group of players walked onto the dried out pitch… sporting barefeet, spotty socks or battered sneakers, the triumphant team held their hands aloft as they strode out to play the match of a lifetime. The 40 or so players (10 too many for a game, but who’s counting?) were flanked by two of the world’s greatest rugby stars… rugby commentor John Robbie and All Blacks legend (and new Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy) Sean Fitzpatrick. But it wasn’t just the pint-sized players wearing the biggest smiles, so were their heroes. For this graffiti-filled, dusty playground is home to the Soweto Schools Rugby Project that is supported by the Laureus Foundation.
Today these youngsters whose hearts were bursting with pride would receive a masterclass to remember. They would be put through training drills and touch rugby sessions by some of the greatest players to ever hold a rugby ball.
For the smiles hide the horrors that this South African city has seen. The Johannesburg township first came to the world’s attention on 16 June 1976 with the Soweto Uprising. Police had opened fire on 10,000 students marching against the policies of apartheid. While the foundations of apartheid were demolished, Soweto is still suffering from deprivation.
However, projects such as the Soweto Schools Rugby Project are giving the area hope as close to 1,000 young players have now walked through its doors. And if anyone was to question whether this project is working they just had to look at the youngsters who thanks to the presence of their heroes are now puffing out their chests, and sporting a bit of a swagger in their step, and their self-esteem seemed to have increased 10-fold.
“When we talk about our vision and our goal [at Laureus], one of the three words that has come up is “disadvantaged”,” says Sean Fitzpatrick. “What I always say to children is, “We’re going to give you the tools.” He adds that he says he wants them to know that they are being given an opportunity, and they need to take that opportunity and make the most of it.
“Mandela was our patron. He said, “Sport has the power to change the world”. And we truly believe that without question,” says Fitzpatrick.
The simplicity of the sport is what makes it so effective. “There was a field, goal posts, and that’s the beautiful thing about rugby – that’s all you need,” says Fitzpatrick. Sport, he adds, gives the children a chance to “trust each other and work together”… build life skills.
Fitzpatrick had met some of the students before in Hong Kong, when 10 of the players were invited to visit the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. During they stay they got to train with Fitzpatrick and the South African Sevens team and even show Fitzpatrick the Soweto version of the Hakka.
However, while the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens welcomed the Soweto players with open arms, getting them on a plane didn’t prove to be so easy: two of the players who are orphans struggled to get passports as they didn’t have the right paperwork. But the Soweto Schools Rugby Project was determined not to leave anyone behind and it took a last ditch attempt at the South African High Court to make sure that they got on the plane.
Sharing their training session with Fitzpatrick in Hong Kong was the Hong Kong Operation Breakthrough team run in association with the Hong Kong Police. The charity project helps boost the self-esteem of deprived kids in Hong Kong through playing rugby. The project has been so successful that some of the players have even gone on to join the police force.
Fitzpatrick says why he thinks these rugby projects work: “Honesty, integrity, trust epitomize what rugby is. I think sport in general helps you learn how to deal with people, learn how to accept criticism, learn how to put your hand up and say “are you happy to do it this way?” It’s taking children away from being bored. A lot of problems come when kids are bored.”
While he has visited a great many projects even he was impressed with what the exchange trip did for the Soweto players: “It was absolutely phenomenal. They turned up [in Hong Kong], and they just couldn’t believe it. They’d never been outside of Soweto!” The Hong Kong kids were like the cool city slickers. [Now meeting the Soweto kids once more]… just heads and shoulders above everyone else. It was just phenomenal what that one trip had done for that group of kids.”
“We have 150 projects globally in 65 different countries. I haven’t been to all 65 countries, but I’ve been to a lot of different places. [But] Soweto in South Africa was amazing for me in terms of the power of rugby.”
Sean Fitzpatrick is the new Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy. He takes over from double Olympic champion Edwin Moses, who has held the post since the creation of Laureus in 2000.